October, 2009


"A vision of paradise that's only inches deep and slams you in the face when you try to walk into it." - Neil Young on MP3s while speaking at a JavaOne Conference (Neil's not an ass kisser obviously).

"Simply speaking, the hall is the instrument of the orchestra. If you mess it up, the orchestra will be a mess. There are some orchestras that don't sound good because they play all the time in a bad hall." - Christoph von Dohnanyi, chief conductor of Hamburg's Symphony, quoted in the New York Times.

By Mike Iacuessa

Acoustical environments and mediums have always played a role in the way music is written and developed.

It was in the 1800s that the romantic era of classical music was in large part affected by the rise of concert halls as a venue. Much of the music composed during that time would have been lost if played, as previously, in kings' chambers, absent the reverberation and sustain that accompanies the large symphony setting. Well into the 18th century, performance rooms had natural reverb times less than 1.5 seconds while symphony halls offered greater than two seconds. That added delay makes a symphony sound richer and, along with advances in instrument design, the change went a long way toward classical composers focusing more on emotional impact during the period. Likewise, music from the earlier baroque era was written with the notion that notes be heard clearly, an approach that can be washed out in a larger hall.

As for modern times, it is hard to imagine rap music without the trademark booming low end, a virtually impossibility on LPs, which due to the grooves having to be cut thin, could not reproduce sounds below 60 hertz. Compact discs, which can get as low as 20 hertz, opened that door. It is equally hard to imagine rock and roll coming to fruition without the invention of the electric guitar and its accompanying condiment - distortion. Is it a coincidence that distortion sounds better in analog and that the golden age of the electric guitar came in the 1970s, the period when LPs and modern recording came together? Distortion is a natural development in analog sound caused by pushing sound levels higher than normal. The same approach in digital causes dropouts. Sound quality and nuances do matter.

Which brings us to today. What exactly has the MP3 brought us other than ease of distribution? In order to allow for easy transfer on the Internet and for taking less storage space, the MP3 is an intentional compromise in sound quality, a technological breakthrough that actually makes CDs - never liked by audiophiles to begin with - sound stellar in comparison.

No recording medium can top the sound of cellos, violas and violins playing live in unison. The beauty instantly transfixes a listener and would make any human being stop and take notice. Instead of striving to get closer to that, we instead are getting further away. That's hardly progress.

There was a time when people just sat around and listened to music. Even accounting for our hyper-paced 21st century habits, it seems a lost appreciation. But then music was once something you could feel as it flowed out of the speakers and into the room with you. Personally, I don't think the easy listening, folk or acoustic music of today still does that and, of all genres, those are the ones that should. In fact, a lot of the recordings sound pretty cold to me, the guitars a bit too bright and brash.

It's not that you can't make digital recordings warm. It's just that with analog you didn't have to worry about it. Unfortunately, many amateur audio engineers are obsessed with what's on their computer screen and not concerned about warmth and tonal beauty, which can't be measured by any graphs that I know of. The sound of live guitars hasn't changed. And I don't think the artists of those genres are any less pleasant to listen to than those 30 years ago. They just don't sound as good to listen to on recordings.

Lost amidst the arguments over distribution, downloading and Internet radio is that   sales are also down because people are not going to buy anything that sounds, as Neil Young once put it in the extreme, like they are "being attacked by ice picks." Most people don't know a whole lot about recording and thus don't factor it into whether they like something or not, but those people also don't realize how the sound quality affects the way they hear things either.

The Internet companies right now are basically trying to sell Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Miles Davis, the music equivalents of say Rembrandts, Picassos and Van Goghs, by displaying them in a smoky, damp gallery. The problem is exacerbated by the fact music is far more three-dimensional - the most abstract of all the arts - and the additional problem with MP3s and, to a certain extent other digital mediums, is the sound lacks depth as well.

Yahoo's jukebox player, before they sold their customer base to Rhapsody, was a classic example of the problem of putting art in the hands of corporate techheads. Once you joined Yahoo Unlimited, you had the additional option of paying more and getting a better quality jukebox. Now I understand the business reality of streaming poorer quality sound for free and offering the better player to subscribers. That's a reality we may all have to live with. Offering it as an upgrade, however, is something that only sounds good in a corporate boardroom. You are trying to sell music! Most record store owners I know always made sure they had a good stereo system in their store.

 There is some hope, however. There is a medium being pushed by T-Bone Burnett, John Cougar Mellencamp and others in addition to Young's recent Blu-ray foray.

The point being that it is a good bet the next Golden Age of Music will come when all this is figured out and recorded music actually starts having good sound quality and warmth again and the people trying to sell it actually develop a respect for that.

Mike Iacuessa is a music producer and founder of the Independent Music Foundation.

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